Robert Wagner to sign his new book Thursday in Ridgewood

BOOKS

Robert Wagner‘s book about legendary actresses includes many he‘s worked with.

WHO: Robert Wagner.

WHAT: Signing his new book, “I Loved Her in the Movies: Memories of Hollywood‘s Legendary Actresses.”

WHEN: 6 p.m. Thursday.

WHERE: Bookends, 211 E. Ridgewood Ave., Ridgewood., book-ends.

HOW MUCH: Free with purchase of book ($27) at Bookends.

Robert Wagner had already written two bestselling memoirs about his life and loves in Hollywood — “Pieces of My Heart” and “You Must Remember This.” Then, several years ago, as he was chatting with Scott Eyman, his co-author on those books, a third one started to form in their minds — about the great female screen stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood that Wagner got to know during a career that has spanned six decades.

“We talked about the women in the movies and the women that I have known and worked with and have had the gift and the fortune to be able to have met … I mean, I didn‘t meet all of them in the book, but most of them. And they made such a tremendous impression on my life,” Wagner says on the phone, after an assistant introduces him as “R.J.” on the call. “We started to talk about it, and then we said, ‘Well, maybe there‘s a book there.‘”

There was. “I Loved Her in the Movies: Memories of Hollywood‘s Legendary Actresses” officially arrives on Tuesday, and Wagner‘s promotional tour will take him to Bookends in Ridgewood on Thursday.

“They gave us all so very much. And the whole thing with this book is it‘s a tribute to these marvelous women who made such an imprint on all our lives and on mine particularly,” says Wagner, who‘s now 86 years old. “And what a gift to be able to have seen them on the screen and then worked with them. For instance, Bette Davis — I was sitting in the theater as a young kid looking at Bette Davis and all of a sudden, I‘m in a movie with her. And I got to know her personally … And I thought, God, what a break, that is. Let‘s see if we can get that down.”

It took the co-authors about three years to put the book together, one of the biggest challenges being choosing which women to include, Wagner says.

“It was a little bit difficult, because there was a cut point. I could have gone on. There could have been other ones, and there are other ones,” he says. “But at some point, we just had to stop, you know?”

Those who made the cut include Davis, Marilyn Monroe, Barbara Stanwyck, Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren, Janet Leigh, Joan Collins, Joanne Woodward, Debbie Reynolds, Capucine, Jennifer Jones, Stefanie Powers and Angie Dickinson, as well as his late wife Natalie Wood and his wife of 26 years, Jill St. John (both of whom Wagner acted with).

And then there were the legends whom he knew socially, including Gloria Swanson, Lana Turner, Joan Crawford, Gene Tierney and Loretta Young.

As Wagner writes in the book, the very first movie star he ever met, when he was 8 years old, was Norma Shearer, widow of the legendary Hollywood producer Irving K. Thalberg. It was 1938, and Wagner was a boarding student at the Hollywood Military Academy. One of his commuting classmates, Irving Thalberg Jr., lived with his famous mom in a “French-Normandy confection right on the beach” in Santa Monica. And one weekend, he took Wagner there for a visit.

“Norma was sitting up in bed and couldn‘t have been more gracious,” Wagner writes. “She didn‘t have the ethereal glow that would strike me when I saw her in the movies, but then [famed cinematographer] William Daniels hadn‘t lit her bedroom.”

Reminded of this witty comment, Wagner chuckles.

In the book, his interviewer points out to him, he humanizes screen icons who average moviegoers can easily forget were actual flesh-and-blood people, with real lives that had heartbreak and messiness.

“Yes. And who tried to live ordinary lives,” Wagner says. “That was the important part of their lives, and a lot of it was taken away because of their careers.”

Wagner also writes about how television affected the movie industry, how the industry has always been more difficult for women than for men — both under the old studio system and now, when actors are free agents — as well as how the different studios specialized in different types of projects and developed different kinds of stars.

“I mean, Bette, with all of her problems with Jack Warner and all of those scripts, I mean, if she had ever walked into L.B. Mayer‘s office and he‘d said, ‘I want to put you in “Showboat,‘ it wouldn‘t have worked. It wouldn‘t have happened,” Wagner says, laughing. “But there was a tremendous sense of discovery then, too. Nowadays, I think there‘s all this comparison. It‘s very hard to become an individual because they‘re comparing you. ‘Oh, she‘s like a Grace Kelly,‘ or she‘s like ‘Bette.‘ It‘s hard to have an [individual] image.”

Wagner also shares his view in the book that many of Hollywood‘s greatest female stars did not have happy or stable childhoods.

“I think that that‘s true. I don‘t think they did,” he says. “A lot of them started in the theater … Joan Blondell was literally born in a trunk. And they didn‘t have a lot of education, and so they were savvy about the work, but when they did get going, [they were challenged by] how to handle their money and how to pick stories.

“And also, they all worked so damn hard, you know? They got them up at 5 o‘clock in the morning and in makeup and by the time they got to the studio, got their hair done, got the body makeup on, got the clothes on … It was full-time work all through the weekends,” Wagner says, noting that when he started in the business in 1950, actors worked weekends, something that didn‘t change until the unions brought about change. “They worked constantly. Constantly.”

That certainly was true of Natalie Wood, a child actress who wowed Hollywood at the age of 5 in “Tomorrow is Forever,”, then went on to do so again in her next film, “Miracle on 34th Street.”

“From her earliest days, Natasha Gurdin — her real name — was the family breadwinner,” Wagner writes, later adding, “Within the Gurdin family, if Natalie got an acting job, she was great, everybody‘s darling, the apple of their eye. If she wasn‘t chosen, they wanted to know what the hell went wrong.”

In the book, Wagner writes that his favorite performance of Wood‘s was the 1966 movie “The Property is Condemned,” a Depression-era story, based on a Tennessee Williams play, in which she played Alva Starr, a beautiful flirt who feels stuck in her small Mississippi town and yearns to escape. She falls in love with a handsome stranger (Robert Redford), who works for the railroad that is the town‘s economic base. The stranger, Owen, has come to town on an unpopular mission.

Why is this his favorite Wood performance?

“Well, she loved Tennessee Williams, and I think that character was very close to something that she identified with so much,” says Wagner, noting that Wood is November‘s “star of the month” on Turner Classic Movies and that he and daughter Natasha Gregson Wagner have been appearing together on camera to talk about some of Wood‘s films and “give the audience a little behind-the-scenes interpretation of what happened” on the films.

Wagner‘s chapter, titled, “Natalie,” does not delve into their first marriage, subsequent divorce and remarriage, nor does it dwell on Wood‘s tragic, untimely and still somewhat mysterious drowning death at the age of 43 off the coast of Catalina Island during a Thanksgiving weekend boat trip in 1981.

“When Natalie died, I thought my life was over,” Wagner writes.

There‘s also a chapter about wife Jill St. John, whom he had worked with “three times before she came into my life at its lowest point,” after Wood‘s death, he writes.

“She‘s been so wonderful to me in my life, just fabulous,” Wagner says. “And I was so fortunate. She is a fantastic woman, an absolutely marvelous woman.”

rohan